Church in the Land of Commerce: 1. Introduction

In the previous eight posts I have been trying to describe a number of basic principles which define the shape of the contemporary North American social imaginary. Taken together they both limit and empower by eliciting and overseeing the ways we live together, the things we value and consider worthy of pursuing. They are like the components of a language that make possible the expression of individual self-understanding within the common life of the mutual give and take of our entire population. In short, these principles are the core elements of the American language of social interaction. Because this sharing of life is such an enormously complex, dynamic, and variegated accretion of phenomena, it almost defies generalization or systematization. Yet, there are patterns. We can, in fact, identify, at least, three areas of our common life in which we constantly and quite naturally interact: commerce, public discourse, and self-governance. The last of these, governance, might be the easiest to recognize, since it is quite clear that in order to function as a society, we need to agree on norms that will balance the needs and rights of the individual with those of others. But, governance is not simply defending the individual, it is also an attempt to “join forces,”to band together to accomplish for the greater good things that no individual can accomplish alone. The first area, commerce, is almost self-evident as a collective expression of individual desire for wealth, that is continual progress and accumulation. Everyone seems to buying and/or selling something.  The importance of the second area, public discourse, is thus obvious. It is the bridge between commerce and governance, as the forum for discussing both the ethical basis for and the actual details of commerce as regulated by self-governance. Each one of the three areas of social interaction articulate its own objectives and establishes its own meanings, devices, structures, and techniques, which are used to achieve their stated goals.

Surrounded by the market-driven context of North American culture, it is easy to see why and how many secular practices make their way so easily into the Church. By the same token, we can also see that the potentially different meanings of those techniques could cause significant difficulty in the Church. In order to systematically evaluate the impact secular thought and practice is having on the Church I will start by identifying those aspects of the commercial landscape that correspond to specific needs within the Church by asking a series of questions:

  • What aspect (challenge) of ministry needs to be addressed,
  • What resources does the Church already possess (alternatives to the business tools)? What should we be doing? What have we been doing?
  • What tools does the business world offer? To what extent is the Church actually using these devices?
  • What meanings, presuppositions are associated with those tools and how could that change or damage the Church?

With this general mapping in place, I will be able to evaluate the effect particular  practices are having on the Church. As I see it, there are four general challenges faced by almost every commercial enterprise: management, production, distribution, and consumption. These correspond roughly to administration, preparation, presentation, and participation in the Church. Management, that is, organizing, planning, developing, offering, and distributing, are crucial elements of any business venture. Even though the Church is not a business, its activities do need to be organized, overseen, and planned. These similarities and the sheer effectiveness of secular practice make it very tempting or convenient to import secular ideas. However, since we believe that it is God Himself who animates and guides the Church, we might want to stay away from the term management, which seems to imply that we are somehow in control, the primary agents. Taking that into account we could call this category of ecclesial activity Church administrationor better yet stewardship. The Productionof the products to be sold is another important part of the commercial process. Since the Church is not selling anything, we have no products to develop or produce. However, we do offer an array of services and they have to be prepared for use. So, here we could speak of the preparationof those services. If you have products to sell they will, of course, have to made available. Distribution, then, is another major focus of commercial enterprise. But again, since the Church has no products, it cannot really speak of distribution. However, the services it offers do have to be made available. This process could be referred to as presentationand would include making these offerings known (advertising?) and providing instructions on how to use or participate in those services. Finally, if a business is to succeed, its products will have to be bought and used, that is consumed. The idea of consumptionmakes little sense in the absence of products. Nevertheless, the Church will have to teach members and potential members how to make use of the services offered. This might be called participation.

While there is no way to cover every eventuality, and some overlap between categories will be inevitable. In any case, let me remind the reader that my goal here is not some kind of primer on commerce, it is, rather an inquiry into the degree to which the Church has itself become involved in commerce and whether or not it has been damaged by that participation.


One comment:

  1. What an amazing read. Yes, it takes me make many years when I decided to seek out a Church to give something back to God who’s given so much to me in the course of my life. As a raised and born European I was shocked entering the Church life here in the US. My initial thought and impression was that of a business, a theater and I really don’t want to relive all the trauma and disappointments of experiences in US Christianity. All that you wrote came across to me and I would not enter or seek out a Church for another thirty years. Irreconcilable differences. But they do not exist with God. Thank you for being honest in that matter, it means a lot to me. Most Churches are not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *